Artist Candace Rose Rardon discovers that Peru’s richest reward is the everyday wonder of friendship and connection.
The first time I travelled to South America — on a six-week trip that took me through Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru — the culminating point and pièce de résistance of my journey was to be none other than Machu Picchu.
Set among the soaring peaks and steaming cloud forests of Peru’s Sacred Valley, it only felt right to devote the final week of my trip to such a renowned world wonder. And neither my one full day at Machu Picchu, nor the days I spent on the Salkantay Trek beforehand walking to the sacred site were in any way a disappointment.
But when I look back on my time in Peru — now that two years and many other trips have taken place since then — the first moments that come to mind aren’t those directly centred on Machu Picchu. The moments I remember most vividly from the Sacred Valley are still significant, but are much smaller in scale: they are simply about the people I met in Peru.
There was Ysaak, a kind security guard at Machu Picchu. After spending my first hours at the site surrounded by fellow visitors, sketching among the crowds gathered just beyond the main gate, I finally slipped away, found a path leading to a sector called the Three Doorways (Tres Portadas), and revelled in my first taste of silence and solitude at Machu Picchu.
“The moments I remember most vividly from the Sacred Valley are still significant, but are much smaller in scale: they are simply about the people I met in Peru.”
As I sat barefoot on the dusty ground and started to sketch one of the doorways, Ysaak passed by me on his circuit of the area. We continued chatting whenever he appeared, and I made sure to say goodbye to him once my sketch was finished.
Leaving Machu Picchu that afternoon, I was reminded of the power of one simple encounter to help us find our place in a new environment.
Next, there was a group of schoolchildren in Písac, a colonial village in the Sacred Valley about an hour’s drive from Cusco — only this encounter didn’t begin as a group.
As I began my sketch in Písac — of a beautiful, tiled-roof church called La Igelsia de San Pedro Apóstol — Anajulia was the first to approach me, wearing a pink headband in her short dark hair and missing her two front teeth. She sat down next to me on a set of steps, looking over my shoulder as I began to draw the church.
“For the next hour and a half, I sat beside the pineapple vendor, his voice booming ‘piña!’ every 30 seconds, or so.”
But as though they could sense one of their friends had discovered something — or in this case, someone — worth investigating, more children soon appeared: six-year-old Manuel, dressed in a gray-and-red tracksuit; Eduardo, dribbling a soccer ball out in front of him; and at least a dozen others. They clambered up the steps, called out and cracked jokes with one another, and corrected my humble attempts at Spanish.
Their presence in quiet Písac that day — and the joy I felt each time we laughed together — brought the town to life for me.
And in the northern city of Tumbes — on my very first afternoon on Peruvian soil — there was a fruit vendor named Juan.
I’d just crossed over into the country from Ecuador, and had only two hours before my bus from Tumbes to Lima would depart — two hours that I was determined to make the most of. I checked in at the bus depot, left my weighty backpack in the luggage room, and set out in hopes of completing an inaugural quick sketch of Peru.
At the end of a pedestrian-only street named the Paseo Los Liberatadores, I spied a church that appeared to be a worthy subject. But on my way there, I passed a man selling slices of fresh pineapple. Even now I can’t say what it was that stopped me in my tracks; there was just something about the sight of him sitting on a bench, next to a single white tray of pineapple slices, spooning juice over and over the six neat stacks of slices in his tray.
I bought a slice for one Peruvian sol (about US$0.30), and as I was savouring the candy-sweet fruit, I realised I had found what I wanted to sketch in Tumbes.
For the next hour and a half, I sat beside the pineapple vendor, his voice booming “piña!” every 30 seconds, or so. His friend, also named Juan, sold tiny toy motorcycles. He carried a huge bag of the toys, setting a row of them up for sale on our bench — and then one in front of me, too, to add to my sketch.
So many times that afternoon in Tumbes, I would turn my sketch over and jot down on the back each small detail that Juan shared with me about his life. Details like how he was 32 years old at the time; not yet married; had been selling pineapple for 12 years; normally sold about 120 slices a day; and at 3:00 PM, he would switch to selling watermelon, which he was storing at a nearby market until then.
I asked Juan if he liked selling pineapple, and he said that he did. That even though he earned less than he might working for a company, he enjoyed being his own boss; that his life was more tranquilo. As a freelance writer and artist, I could relate to the value Juan placed on his freedom.
I didn’t know then, on my first day in Peru, that my conversation with Juan was only the first of many such encounters that would happen in the country.
What I know now is that these encounters, with security guards and street food vendors and lively, laughing schoolchildren, are what made the Sacred Valley so sacred for me; that in between witnessing world wonders, Peru’s richest reward was simply the everyday wonder of friendship and connection.
Ed’s note: This post originally appeared here.